Time is a critical factor in the treatment of snake bite. Equally important is identifying the snake type. A biosensor being developed by researchers at the State Inter-University Centre for Excellence in Bioinformatics (SIUCEB), under the University of Kerala, for the identification of snake venom is expected to detect the snake type from a body fluid sample in some 20 minutes.
India is home to around 216 species of snakes, of which 52 are venomous. Though not home to the most venomous of snakes, our country holds the dubious record of the highest snake bite deaths in the world, followed by Sri Lanka. Snake bites claim 50,000 to 75,000 lives every year in India. The states with the largest number of snake bite cases include West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Snake bite deaths in India are mainly caused by the ‘Big Four' snakes—the Spectacled Indian Cobra, Common krait, Russell's viper and Saw Scaled viper. The conventional treatment, upon confirmation of snake bite based on symptoms like nausea, dizziness or non-coagulation of blood, is to administer polyvalent anti-snake venom, which comprises antibodies of the venoms of these four snakes. The antibodies then neutralise those present in the patient's body. The others remain in the body and can cause collateral damage and failure of internal organs, thereby demanding secondary treatment, or even causing death.
“It is here that the snake venom detection bio-sensor (SVDB) has its role. The SVDB, which incorporates biology and electronics, helps not only in the precise detection of the type of snake, but also helps estimate the percentage of venom present in the victim,” says Dr Dileepkumar R., postdoctoral fellow at SIUCEB and principal investigator of the state-funded project, which has the Little Flower Hospital, Angamaly, and MAGJ Hospital, Mookkannur, as collaborators.
The principle is antigen-antibody interactions and the analysis of the biological reactions with the help of sensors. Roughly of the size of a glucometer, the gadget comprises a strip coated with species-specific antibodies. The victim's blood, urine or body fluid from the bite site is applied on the strip, which is administered with enzyme-labelled secondary antibody that can generate electrons measurable as electric current for a reaction. The strip is then inserted into the biosensor, which analyses the electrons released in the biological reaction to identify the type of snake.
The biosensor will obviate the need to wait for tangible symptoms and help the doctor to administer the appropriate monovalent at the required dosage, and thus minimise death. The researchers are looking at achieving a precision quotient of more than 95 per cent. The time taken—20 minutes—by the prototype, the researchers say, could be further reduced later during implementation. While the technical design of the biosensor is complete, the biological study is on, says Dileepkumar.
“Embedded system technology is made use of in SVDB to convert the biological reactions into meaningful information, in this case the type of snake and the percentage of venom in the victim's body,” says M.G. Gireeshan, an MPhil student at SIUCEB. Gireeshan, who carried out the electronics part of this interdisciplinary research, has over 120 inventions to his credit.
“The University of Kerala, which celebrates its platinum jubilee this year, has just one patent to its name, whereas in foreign universities, a few hundreds of patents are registered every year. The ongoing research activities at SIUCEB will help remove the notion that universities are mere centres of imparting education, but be acknowledged as knowledge centres,” says Dr Achuthsankar S. Nair, director, SIUCEB, who leads the research team along with Dr Oommen V. Oommen, CSIR emeritus scientist.
Prototype of the sensor expected to be ready in six months
Meant for use in hospitals
For detection, body fluid from the bite site most appropriate, though blood and urine can also be used. The sensor, after the strip with body fluid is inserted, gives a glow that indicates the type of snake